'People continue to sell as if they were in a quaint Norman Rockwell painting. That no longer works like it used to," said Rich Farrell, president of Tangent Knowledge Systems, during a presentation at Heavy Duty Aftermarket Week earlier this year.
"The information economy has dramatically revolutionized the sales profession, yet salespeople continue to behave as if Google and the Internet do not exist."

Farrell, who's been doing sales and business development for 25 years, stressed a "non-selling posture" that allows the salesperson to play the role of a "change agent" rather than the more typical product-centric transactional approach.

Sales people have always been valued as a resource for information. But today, whether it's true or not, Farrell said, customers now perceive that they can get this information elsewhere, with a few clicks of the computer keys. "The value proposition salespeople have always relied on, that competitive advantage of having access to information others wanted, has been severely marginalized and compromised," he said.

That's why it's time for salespeople to create a new value proposition, he said. "That's no longer giving information, it's getting information."

Farrell says today it's about understanding the customer, about having a conversation with the customer about their situation and whether or not you can uniquely help that customer.

"We don't just bring content, we bring context - a unique perspective to help the customer better understand their business through the quality of their questions and the quality of their interaction," he said. "Stop presenting, stop closing, stop answering objections, and get the customer to sell YOU on whether or not they have a compelling motivating reason to change."

This approach will make some salespeople feel threatened, Farrell said. They will get "no's" a lot faster, and most salespeople are threatened by that. Yet in a typical sales call, he says, "everyone is avoiding the truth. There's all this mistrust. The best process a salesperson can do is getting to the truth of a customer's situation."

Reversing the Flow

When you compare salespeople touting their business' advantages, Farrell said, "Everyone looks the same and sounds the same. They're all communicating quality, service, value, performance, etc."

You need to reverse the flow of information, Farrell said. "Your job is not to give information, your job is to get information." And to get the right information. Customers will buy what helps them to avoid or solve problems. So salespeople need to learn what kind of problems customers have, what their problems are costing them - and whether they're actionable.

But be careful, he said, to keep in mind that all problems from your prospect are equal until proven otherwise. Don't go off running to the races to solve a prospect's problem until you've done your due diligence to understand whether that problem has consequences and is actionable.

"In the information economy, your salespeople are rewarded not for their information and solutions, but for the quality of their questions," Farrell said. "The salesperson with the best understanding of a customer's business and their problems and the cost of their problems will outsell the person with the best solution, the best price and the best innovation."

If the customers asks, "Why are you unique? Why should I buy from you?" Farrell suggests an approach something like, "Mr. Customer, until I truly understand your business and what you're trying to accomplish, I'm not sure if I am the right company to buy from. Let's talk about what your problems are and then decide if we're a good fit."

"What really differentiates you in today's information economy is not what you sell, but how you sell it," Farrell said. "It's how you position your company through the quality of your questions, through the quality of your engagement style, to really provoke and get the customers to share more information with you.

"If they're not willing to share information, what does that tell you? That they're not serious, or that they're looking for a pure commodity. If your customer has no problems, or they're not willing to share them with you, you have very little to sell. You do not know what you're selling until you first get the customer to communicate what their problems are."

The customer cares about themselves, not about your company. Yet most salespeople, Farrell said, love to talk about themselves, their own company, their own product.

"We're wasting valuable time giving customers information they don't really are about. What they really care about is, 'Mr. Salesperson, do you really care enough about my business to ask questions and find out what I care about, what keeps me up at night?'"

A Different Way

Farrell offers an alternative selling process, which he says is simple, but not easy.

"My process gets to the truth quickly," he said. "But the downside of getting to the truth quickly is you might get rejection, or you might get realistic information that this deal is not going to be positive information. And then you get something worse than having someone jack you around: having to do new business development."

1. Create trust. Farrell suggests something like this: "Lee, thanks for inviting me today. I'm not sure if I can help you; what I'd like to do is ask you some questions. I know you'll have some questions to ask of me, and at the end of the meeting hopefully we'll determine if it's a good fit. If it's not, at the end of the meeting, feel free to tell me no and I'll graciously get out of your way." Salespeople need to give up control to get control, Farrell said.

Even if you know in advance what the prospect' problems are, you must allow them to verbalize their own version and rendition. If the salesperson has not taken the time to let the prospect verbalize their pain, the salesperson won't gain the trust to solve it.

2. Create a motive for change. People buy either for gain / advantage / benefit / opportunity / success, or they buy to address pain / insecurity / dissatisfaction / fear. "People will run twice as fast to avoid something than to gain something. You have to find out what they have to lose before you find out what they have to gain," Farrell said. "People buy emotionally. Don't tell customers why you're different or why they should buy from you. Simply tell them the problems you address and the problems you fix."

3. Investment. You have to understand what they are willing to invest, in time, resources, and budget.

4. Understand their decision-making process. Does the person you're talking to have the authority to make the decision?

5. Pre-commitment. After finding out what their problems are, say, "I'd like to come back and give you a presentation" with more details on how you can help them avoid or solve those problems. Time it according to their willingness to change.

6. Solution/presentation. The best presentation is no presentation at all.

7. After-sale reality check. You have to manage future expectations.

Farrell calls closing "a non-event." The real event, he says, is opening. Opening is where 90 percent of all sales are won or lost. In fact, he said, salespeople should avoid closing the sale at all costs and have the customer close themselves. What is more valuable and realistic than closing is seeking the truth. The truth will help you decide if closure is realistic. The more space and freedom you give your clients the opportunity to say "no," the less inclined they are to use it as a response. "Seeking closure is a far more powerful closing tool than closing. The former is collaborative. The latter is manipulative."

In the past, the prevailing wisdom was that people buy from people they like. That's why salespeople traditionally put so much time, effort and money into entertaining. Today, according to Tangent, the new tenet is people buy from people they like - but more importantly, they buy from people they believe have taken the time, have the patience, the expertise, and care enough to really learn about their business, their vision, and their problems in a way few others could.